The last time Fern Britton appeared on stage was actually at The Kings Theatre in Southsea as the Fairy in Dick Whittington back in 1989.
At the time she was living in Southsea, ‘a stone’s throw from the theatre, I could almost go home and have a cup of tea in the interval,’ and was co-anchor on TVS’s flagship news programme, Coast To Coast.
From there she went on to host the popular BBC1 show Ready Steady Cook, and was a main presenter on ITV’s This Morning for several years. She has guested on numerous other shows and also has a successful writing career.
But in all that time she has avoided returning to the stage – until the chance to appear in a new touring version of Calendar Girls The Musical landed in her lap. And even then she resisted.
‘I fall into things all the time,’ Fern tells The Guide. ‘My entire life has been spent falling in and out of stuff.
‘I was telephoned by my agent, last Christmas actually, and he told me about these two jobs. One I thought, that sounds nice, and this other one which is really off the wall – a UK tour of Calendar Girls The Musical, by [Take That singer-songwriter] Gary Barlow. I said: “God no, I wouldn’t cast me, don’t be ridiculous, I’m not an actress”. He said: “I thought so, and it’s a nine month tour”. I said: “I’d get so homesick, I can’t do that”.
‘The following week he called me back to say the job we thought was good, turns out it wasn’t so good and it’s disappeared. However… Calendar Girls is still on the table. So I said: “No, absolutely not.”
‘Then the next week I got an email saying Gary Barlow would like to have a cup of coffee with me. Now, I have met Gary a few times through work, so I thought: “Oh well, that’s nice of him, I’ll meet him and say it’s crazy, don’t even think about me”.
‘But at that meeting, I suddenly had a script put in front of me, and suddenly I had to read a scene, and suddenly Gary, the writer Tim [Firth], and the director, and the producer and casting director were all sat listening to me.
‘I remember just sitting in this small room in an 18th century, wobbly-floored beautiful building in Soho, down one of those little alleys, with all of these people staring at me while I was reading this and thinking: “This is crazy”.’
But after she finished, they offered her the role on the spot.
‘I fell out on the pavement, and it was a cold and wet day, I rang my agent and said: “I think I’ve got this job”.
‘I walked out shocked. It was fate going: go on give it a go.’
The show is based on the true story of a group of middle-aged women from a Yorkshire WI branch who produce a nude calendar to raise money for Leukaemia Research (now known as Bloodwise) in 1999 after the death of a member's husband.
The story spawned a hit film in 2003 before being turned into a play and then the musical. The touring show’s cast also stars Anna-Jane Casey, Sara Crowe, Karen Dunbar, Ruth Madoc, Rebecca Storm and Denise Welch.
Does she think that going into the room not expecting an actual audition helped her get the part?
‘Possibly. But I’m a sucker for flattery, if someone tells me I’m good then I think: “Yeah, I can do that”. Then I realise afterwards, oh, can I?’ she laughs. Thankfully the rest of the cast helped her find her feet.
‘They have been so generous to me. I arrived with my hands up going: “I’m not an actress, you know I can’t do this”, but they absorbed me very quickly and have been very inclusive. It’s really lovely.
‘We’re good together and it works well.’
The tour opened in August in Leeds where Fern admits she was taken aback by the audience’s response.
‘That first night, to hear the reaction was unbelievable, they were so appreciative, it just goes down incredibly well. Every time we do this show, they are on their feet, crying shouting, whistling. And every night, I stand there thinking, how the hell did I get here? But it’s wonderful.
‘It’s an incredible story and people really respond to it.’
Unlike her co-stars Fern gets to keep her clothes on too.
‘I hadn’t even thought about that when I was offered the part, stupid me!
‘But I’m the bad fairy, they’re all good, and I want to stop and spoil everything. I call her a very damaged control-freak. She actually wants to be loved and appreciated, but she goes about it in totally the wrong way. Of course, when the calendar turns out to be a huge success she absorbs all of the reflected glory.’
Although the idea of a charity calendar with artfully and amusingly covered nudes has become ubiquitous, it was the Rylstone WI calendar which launched the trend.
‘It was so clever was that no-one was expecting women in their fifties and sixties to be doing that, and now they’ve raised £6m for Bloodwise.
‘Every night members of the cast, we take it in turns to go out with the buckets with local volunteers from Bloodwise for wherever we are and in the last four months we’ve raised £36,000. We do selfies and so on, and the audience are so sweet, it’s marvellous. It’s a win-win.’
Could we see Fern on the stage more after this?
‘I really don’t know. I am enjoying it, although I wonder whether I am cut out for it. The tour is a big thing – I like the travelling and coming to different places. We do eight shows a week from Tuesday to Saturday and we travel Sunday/Monday – that relentless schedule is tiring.
‘I used to interview actors and actresses and they’d tell me how stressful and tiring it was and I’d be thinking: “Rubbish”. But actually now I’m doing it, it really is!’
Before appearing at The Kings, Fern had been Dandini in Cinderella the previous year at the Mayflower, so this leg of the tour marks a welcome return for her.
‘It will be my first time back on the stage there. It’s such a great big theatre, when we did panto it was packed every night.
‘I have very happy memories of it. I’m looking forward to coming back. I was very happy in that stint at the Mayflower and had great fun.’
Calendar Girls The Musical is at Mayflower Theatre, Southampton from January 8-19. Tickets £20.50 to £49.50. Go to mayflower.org.uk.